By: Tony Best
“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.”
Chances are the Rt. Reverend Howard Gregory, the Anglican Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands probably used those words found in Ecclesiastes, to anchor many a sermon. Indeed, the highly trained cleric can provide us with chapter and verse about “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Just as important, there is “a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.”
In essence, the passage of Scripture underscores our need to be able to recognize the changing seasons and emotions. That’s because failure to know when the time is ripe to say certain things can leave us ignored by the very people to whom we are trying to send an important message. That was probably the unfortunate result of the Bishop’s unbalanced and unfinished sermon.
In a carefully prepared message delivered last Sunday at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan where thousands of Jamaicans, their friends and neighbors in New York gathered to sing praises to God for their countries good fortunes earned during 50 years of independence from Britain in 1962. Most came to leave feeling good about themselves and their country. Indeed, there is much for Jamaicans to celebrate as they assess what has happened since that night in August in 1962 when the Union Jack came down for the last time over Jamaica and the new symbol of sovereignty the island’s new flag took its rightful place. It was a ground-breaking time not simply for Jamaicans but for the rest of the Caribbean. For the new island-nation was the first to march onto independence in the English-speaking Caribbean. Dozen colonial territories followed Jamaica on the journey to self-determination during the next two decades.
But listening to Bishop Gregory, the magnitude of the occasion and what the country had achieved to lift itself up seemed lost in his pre-occupation with the negative features of life. He obviously forgot or ignored the letter and the spirit of Ecclesiastes, a “time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.”
Yes, he told the worshipers from across the New York Metropolitan region that Jamaica had made significant strides by vastly improving the rate of adult literacy, giving a third of the population access to tertiary education and by seeing its population age through expanding life expectancy rates. But just when many in the congregation wanted to “laugh” and “dance” as the Kaphar Dance Company had done during the service, Bishop Gregory veered off into a sea of negativism that would have made any faint-hearted nationalist weep for his or her country.
He complained about the 30,000-plus Jamaicans whose lives were snuffed off by killers in the past 50 years and he spoke with passion about crime and violence. He also inveighed against corruption, human trafficking, child abuse and the indifference of successive governments to the plight of the less fortunate in society. Human suffering was a nightmare and racial prejudice was widespread in the Caribbean, he said.
“We must be concerned about the pervasive abuse of our children, human trafficking, poverty, unemployment, crime and violence, social injustice and protracted delays in the delivery of justice through the courts,” he went on. “Corruption, the neglect of the environment and challenges within the educational system” were things that must be reversed.
Clearly, the problems he highlighted are serious and merit urgent attention. There wasn’t any suggestion that he was mistaken in his figures and conclusions. But what was obvious to all and sundry was that his sermon lacked balance. It was a strong message but it was delivered at the wrong place and at the wrong time. People go to church at independence time to reflect on their country’s achievements and their failures in the hope that collectively they can make a difference, right the things that were wrong and build on the achievements. They prefer to leave the church feel a sense of pride but certainly not a sense of shame. With diplomats and foreign consular representatives in the congregation, Jamaicans could hardly have felt satisfied that the Bishop was even-handed in his articulation of the society and economic picture at this historic milestone. Many felt embarrassed and quite rightly so.
Compare the picture he painted with the words of the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, who in a special message read by the Consul-General Herman LaMont spoke of a “time of renewal and commitment,” a chance to make Jamaica “the place we want it to be.” She, quite rightly, praised the country for its accomplishments but was quick to insist there is more to be done.” What a pity the Bishop didn’t lead the way in that vein.
Clearly, he misjudged the occasion and in his desire to make his presence felt from the lofty heights of the pulpit through his memorable words ringing in people’s ears as they headed home, he seemed to have forgotten that Riverside Church is noted for its role of highlighting the plight of developing countries and their peoples. Yes his presence wouldn’t be forgotten any time soon but for the wrong reason: the missed opportunity to inspire people to attain greater heights.
Admittedly, from a religious perspective the Bishop was right to point out Jamaica’s failings but he also needed to provide some hope for the good of the country and to stir people’s pride. Obviously, it was an unbalanced and an incomplete sermon.
The well-planned and smoothly conducted service showed off the ability of Jamaicans to worship God with a sense of dignity and pride and with gusto. That certainly was the hallmark of the afternoon.